President Obama is not a leader.
By that I don’t just mean that I disagree with his agenda, or that I think he often lies to the American people, or that he’s not inspirational (although all of those statements do describe my position). I mean that, even from the point of view of a supporter on the Left, he seems to be an extreme disappointment at the moment in terms of getting his (and their) agenda passed.
One of the things that’s led me to this conclusion is that I’ve been doing a bit of reading on blogs on the Left and seeing the reactions there towards his strategy on health care reform. For the most part, commenters are angry at him because they feel he’s deserted the cause of single payer. To these people, single payer—despite Obama’s continuing to speak as though it’s important to him—is not being fought for sufficiently. They see single payer as not just one among many methods by which health care reform might be accomplished, but as the obligatory and necessary heart of the matter.
I’ve not seen their reasons for this primacy of single payer specifically articulated; it’s just assumed and implied. But one motivation seems to be hatred of private insurance and the profits therein; it’s a form of greedy capitalism, after all, and must be expunged from our national shame. Another seems to be idealization of the European and Canadian approaches, and a desire to emulate those countries. But whatever the reasons may be, there is a fair amount of rage at Obama, as well as at Congress and the Senate in particular, about the possible compromises being hammered out that eliminate the public option.
Some of that sentiment takes a form that would be familiar to anyone on the Right who has railed against the RINOs: throw the bums (in this case, the Blue Dogs in the House and various moderates Democrats in the Senate) out! Let’s elect us some real Progressives next time!
This plan is a bit shortsighted, since these people are from fairly conservative districts and would be likely to be replaced by Republicans if the Democratic Party mounted candidates sufficiently “progressive” to please its Left in the next election. But the point is that people on the Left are that angry, and a great many are saying the same about Obama as well: what’s the use of voting for him next time if he can’t get anything done?
I have a larger interest in another question, however: why can’t he get this done, considering what huge majorities he has in Congress? That question could be rendered moot of course (and my answers incorrect) if he ends up getting it done after all. But at the moment it looks as though a somewhat watered-down version of health care reform is all that will be passed.
The answer as to why it’s been so hard for Obama is one the Left don’t want to hear: America is not in favor of the solution they want, or the one Obama is offering. That may not matter to them—after all, they know better than stupid Americans, and we should be wanting what our intellectual and moral superiors on the Left think we should want. But it is certainly a fact that, despite the 2008 election results, America has still not turned sufficiently to the Left for most of these people.
And Obama has been foundering of late as a leader. This should be completely unsurprising—after all, if you look at his history, why would he be a leader? Obama is experienced in several things: campaigning, oratory, community organizing, and professorship. That is his skill set. You can see these elements all at work, big time, during his presidency. When in doubt, he falls back on one or several of them.
But presidents are required to do more. They need to get into specifics. They need to work with Congress. They need to persuade the reluctant. They need to reason, not spin. And they need to produce results. And Obama is bad at all of these, at least so far—thank goodness.
Some on the Left lament that Obama can’t pull an LBJ. Now there was a man who knew how to twist and manipulate and pressure and deal with Congress! LBJ had spent most of his life there, however, and had an acknowledged mastery of the game, legendary even before he became president. And although Obama did come from the Senate rather than a governorship, he was a freshman senator who spent almost no time there, and most of it campaigning. He is a neophyte compared to LBJ and other Washington insiders.
Obama lacks national legislative experience, but he also lacks executive experience, which is a huge part of a presidency. The perception is that he’s flailing around in that regard, unsure how to lead or manage or delegate properly. When in doubt, he falls back on propaganda and oratory.
But he’s having trouble controlling that message, too, as the adoring press becomes a little feistier and the public more demanding of results. Press conferences—as opposed to interviews by obsequious journalists—were never his forte, and as president he’s had to (or chosen to; take your pick) give quite a few so far. They’ve not gone well, especially the last one, which featured vague platitudes and generalities on health care, and the “stupidly” comment that led to Gatesgate.
I for one am glad Obama is turning out to lack leadership skills. Things are bad enough, and I shudder to think how much more of his agenda would have already been passed had he possessed them. Let’s hope he doesn’t learn on the job—unless he wants to lead us to policies that make more sense.
[ADDENDUM: Here's an article that talks about the problem in different terms---that Obama is having trouble delivering his "message," and is showing increasing frustration. For the Left, it seems to be mostly about competing narratives.
And here's a quote on the topic of the Senate compromise vs. single payer, and the Left's attitude:
Speaking of public option vs. co-op, the Finance Committee plan is either going to be the most brilliant piece of triangulation ever, or it's going to open up a fight on the left that is U-G-L-Y. Clearly, the White House is VERY open to a co-op. It is trying hard NOT to bash the public option or show preference to a co-op. But Team Obama definitely has an open mind.]
[ADDENDUM II: Here's an article I just found, with a pretty good summary of the fight on this issue between the hard Left and the liberals in the Democratic Party. And I just read this one by Michael Barone, who seems to pretty much agree with me.]